Our $1 tuna-fish lunch at an NYC cooling center

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Today’s the first day this year that the city has opened its cooling centers, the specially designated air-conditioned havens where heat-addled New Yorkers can go for a breather. On this 92-degree day, our family seemed to be hitting the limits of a no-AC summer—inspired by equal parts cheapness, bravado and child cruelty—so my 6-year-old son and I packed up bag lunches and headed to the nearest chilling station.

As it happens, the Dorchester Senior Center, tucked into the basement of an Orthodox synagogue, is a cheerful little place. It has a chatty atmosphere where people tend to cluster at tables with their ethnic ilk (Asian, Russian, African-American and so forth). I am disappointed when we are assigned to dine by ourselves, and our attempts to bridge the gap between tables are only intermittently successful (though we do learn that baked chicken legs—Wednesday—is a favorite.)

senior-center-signEven though we have our own food, the Russian lunch lady insists on serving us today’s meal: a tuna scoop, a baked potato, salad, cantaloupe triangle, pineapple juice and two pieces of rye bread with butter. She doesn’t ask for IDs or charge us. A sign invites diners to pay $1 for lunch but says nobody over 60 will be turned away for non-payment. If you’re under 60, lunch goes up to $2.50 on a non-cooling-center day, the director informs us later. Breakfast is only 25 cents, but it doesn’t sound fancy: just coffee, tea, bread, jam and butter.

Food-wise, and air-conditioning-wise, the afternoon is a success (wilted salad aside), and my son would be content to stay until the place closes at 4, despite a total absence of kids’ activities. Socially, though, it probably takes a while to break in. We were the only ones there for cooling purposes, and most folks here seem to be regulars who know each other from the knitting groups, walking clubs and boisterous mah jongg games the center sponsors. When we take out our Pokemon cards, several people pause by the table and smile but nobody takes the step of joining in.

That’s okay, because we’ll be back, possibly on Wednesday for baked chicken. On the way out, we learn that the place has a wireless router. Wonder how the coffee is.

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